COLUMBIA, SC — Emmas Law passed the S.C. House overwhelmingly Wednesday in an unexpectedly lopsided 112 to 0 vote after a yearlong battle to get through that chamber.
The victory came after a lunchtime rally outside the State House and months of intense lobbying of state lawmakers and working behind the scenes to make sure various state agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, were comfortable with details of the 48-page, often technical bill.
Wednesdays victory came at a high price for Karen Longstreet, the mother of 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2012 and for whom the bill is named.
Im a selfish mom I would rather have her here, said Karen Longstreet, fighting back tears in the State House lobby.
I would have liked to see her reach 7 and 8. Id like to have seen her lose a tooth... . I miss those mommy kisses, and I miss not brushing her hair. I miss everything.
David Longstreet, who in recent months visited some 35 counties to organize grass-roots support for the bill, said Emmas birthday is May 29 and the House passage will neutralize some of the pain. The pain is terrible. Theres a little joy in this, but not a lot.
The bill must now go back to the Senate for a second vote there, because of some changes made to it by the House. Approval is expected but not certain.
The bill, which targets hard-core drunken drivers, is the first significant effort in years to curb the states soaring drunken driving death rate.
Wednesdays unexpectedly quick and unexpectedly unanimous vote which followed about 20 minutes of nuts-and-bolts questions by lawmakers to floor leader Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington came as a surprise. Tightening drunken driving laws is a hard sell in South Carolina, despite the fact that the state ranks among the top seven states in sheer numbers of people killed each year by drunk drivers.
I was braced for a very long floor fight, Quinn said.
Several members had been expected to try to amend the bill in controversial ways that could have jeopardized its chances of passage. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a lawyer, said he was going to offer amendments but was called away to court when the floor discussion began.
Following the vote, Quinn wept with happiness. He is a close friend of the Longstreet family.
Quinn first met the Longstreets on New Years Day 2012. He was in church that morning when repeat drunken driver Billy Patrick Hutto Jr. crashed into the Longstreets minivan right outside the building. Quinn then attended Emmas funeral.
Since then, Quinn has worked with the Longstreets, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who is the bills sponsor in the Senate, and others to craft Emmas Law.
South Carolinas current DUI laws contain numerous loopholes that let people charged with DUI delay or avoid trial, get off with light sentences and resume driving quickly. Representing accused and convicted DUI defendants is a booming, $100 million-plus annual business for attorneys in South Carolina. About 30,000 people are arrested each year for DUI.
If and when the Senate concurs with the House version, the bill would then go to the desk of Gov. Nikki Haley.
Supporters of Emmas Law expect the governor, who is from Lexington County, to sign the bill. Haleys office had no comment Wednesday.
Since Emmas death, more than 500 people have been killed by drunken drivers in South Carolina without lawmakers taking any action to address the mounting carnage.
As written, Emmas Law would require an ignition interlock device be hooked up to a cars ignition for all first-offense drunken drivers who are convicted of, or who plead guilty to, a first offense DUI and who have a blood alcohol content of .15 or above.
That is almost twice the legal limit for impaired driving. They would keep it on for six months for a first offense. A second conviction even for a .08 or greater would keep it on for two years.
Anyone who wants to start the car must blow into the machine with a alcohol breath level of less than .02.
Ignition interlock devices are in use in 35 states. Studies show they help lower DUI-related fatalities.
Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said following the vote that few potentially controversial bills attract such widespread support as Emmas Law. It crossed party lines, regional lines and racial lines, Neal said.
Quinn said, Its a wonderful feeling, but a sad feeling too if we had done this three-four years ago, how many people could have been saved. Every state that has done this has seen a reduction in DUI fatalities.
Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, said intense lobbying across the state by pro-Emmas Law people made the difference. This is what happens when you put pressure on this body, he said.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, said Wednesday he expected the Senate would pass the new House version. Theres a tremendous amount of public support for this.
Several lawmakers said a letter sent to the 124 House members this week by David Longstreet and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins helped the bills quick passage Wednesday.
In their letter, Longstreet and Jenkins whose 3-year-old nephew, Josiah, was killed in a car crash last month by a man police say is a repeat drunken driver begged lawmakers to pass Emmas Law quickly.
Please work as one and adopt a piece of legislation that saves lives, Longstreet and Jenkins wrote.